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50 Years After the Demolition of Penn Station

Save Penn Station

Fifty years ago this week, on October 28th, 1963, demolition began on the original McKim, Mead & White Penn Station with the ceremonial removal of a nearly three-ton eagle from the 33rd Street Entrance.  The main clock at the station was set at 10:53 to mark the short lifespan of the building.  The building had opened in 1910 and stood for only 53 years. The next day, members of the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York – or AGBANY – who had been working to save the building, wore black armbands and held a vigil in the rain.  Over the next three years, as trains underneath continued to run, the headhouse of Penn Station, a masterpiece of Beaux Arts architecture, was systematically torn down.

An Engineering Feat and Architectural Marvel

“The General Waiting Room of the original Penn Station” Credit: A. F. Sozio, MAS photo archives

“The General Waiting Room of the original Penn Station”
Credit: A. F. Sozio, MAS photo archives

Prior to the construction of Penn Station and the tunnels and tracks that serve it, passengers of the Pennsylvania Railroad coming from the west had to disembark from their trains in Jersey City and enter New York by ferry. In order to get their passengers directly into Manhattan, the railroad embarked on the remarkable task of tunneling under the Hudson River and building a new station.

Penn Station opened to rave receptions in 1910. The New York Architect called the station “a lasting monument of a great city of which it was to form the western gateway.” Montgomery Schulyler in The International Studio noted the station’s regenerative function, saying that it had given “value to a quarter which had sunk into neglect and decay.” The tunnels that allowed trains to enter Penn Station under the Hudson rightfully earned their own positive press coverage as massive feats of engineering, and continue to serve the station today.

Decline and Demolition

“The Demolition of the Original Penn Station” Credit: Landmarks Preservation Commission, MAS photo archives

“The Demolition of the Original Penn Station”
Credit: Landmarks Preservation Commission, MAS photo archives

Ridership at Penn peaked during World War II, as soldiers and civilians flowed through the station. However, after the war, the rise of the automobile, coupled with the growth of airplane travel, led to a sharp decline in train ridership. In 1939 railroads handled 65 percent of intercity passenger traffic; by 1960 that share fell to just 27 percent. The Pennsylvania Railroad entered dire financial straits and Penn Station fell into disrepair. The railroad looked for options for how to monetize their valuable real estate, eventually courting the owners of Madison Square Garden, who were looking for a new site for their arena. In July 1961, a deal was struck to build an arena and office development on the site, while the station below would be remodeled and continue to function underground. The resulting maze of corridors and cramped stairways designed by architect Charles Luckman reflected the belief at the time – that train travel and perhaps New York itself — were in decline.

Next Chapter for Penn

“Penn Station Today – at Capacity” Credit: Syd London

“Penn Station Today – at Capacity”
Credit: Syd London

Today, a growing number of people are flocking to cities to live, work, and invest and the use of intercity and commuter rail along the Northeast Corridor and in New York has grown tremendously since the 1960’s. The station now operates above capacity, even as large developments like Hudson Yards coming online in Manhattan’s west side will only increase ridership demands. Today’s Penn Station is overcrowded and ill-equipped to manage additional growth.

Another notable 50 year anniversary occurred recently – the issuing of Madison Square Garden’s permit to operate on its current site. This summer, at the urging of MAS, RPA and numerous others, the New York City Council voted to limit the Garden’s permit to operate above Penn Station to just 10 more years. Finding a new home for Madison Square Garden is a critical step in planning for a 21st century Penn Station. Moving the Garden allows for rebuilding the existing station to create a more rational configuration that connects to Moynihan Station, which is currently under construction across 8th Avenue, and to Amtrak’s Gateway Project, which calls for a new trans-Hudson crossing and additional tracks south of the current station. Rebuilding the current station, coupled with Moynihan and Gateway, allows for dramatically improved circulation, increased transit capacity, and the full realization of Penn Station’s economic value.

This past May, to help bring attention to the need for rethinking Penn Station, MAS hosted the Design Challenge for a New Penn Station and the Next Madison Square Garden, inviting H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, SHoP Architects and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, some of New York’s most well-known and respected design firms, to re-envision Penn Station and the surrounding area. In July, MAS and James Lima Planning + Development released Unlocking Penn’s Potential, exploring the creation of a Penn Station Redevelopment and Revenue Capture District as a funding source for improvements to Penn Station. In October, coinciding with the 2013 MAS Summit for New York City and in response to the Garden’s 10-year permit, MAS and RPA jointly released Penn 2023, outlining the case for a new Penn Station, describing principles to help guide development and illustrating the necessary elements for a new transit hub.

To make this project work, we need a viable financial plan, a station with added capacity to accommodate growing demand, and long term thinking about the city’s future. The original Penn Station headhouse is gone forever. But its destruction provides invaluable lessons as New York faces the monumental task of creating a Penn Station that will service the city for the next century.

Sources:

  • Ballon, Hillary. New York’s Penn Stations. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.
  • Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. New York: Clarkson Potter, Inc. 1995.
  • Parissien, Steven. Pennsylvania Station: McKim, Mean and White. London: Phaidon Press, Ltd. 1996.